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Whittier continues work to shrink Hub health gap

Eduardo A. de Oliveira

With the end of April comes the end of National Minority Health Month. But efforts to eliminate health disparities are ongoing, led by devoted medical professionals such as Frederica Williams, president and CEO of Whittier Street Health Center.

Williams faced huge challenges when she took the reins of the Roxbury center in 2002. At the time, Whittier served 5,000 patients and the institution ran a $600,000 deficit. Williams, whose professional background includes a bachelor’s degree from the London School of Accountancy, soon turned things around, and now operates the health center on a surplus of about $350,000.

Today, Whittier caters to one of the most diverse populations in the Boston region, with 12,000 patients from 20 countries, approximately 90 percent of whom are minorities.

Apart from being gifted with numbers, Williams says she understands from firsthand experience the plight of underserved communities.

“We don’t wait for people to get here,” she says. “We’re very active in reaching out to the community, because we know what transforms their lives.”

Williams employs a socially sensitive management style that takes a holistic approach to health care. That approach includes offering tips on the benefits of healthy eating and regular exercise.

A recent Whittier center program to help 800 children to fight morbid obesity, she says, had a 100 percent compliance rate. Started in October of 2006, the project included family trips to local supermarkets assisted by medical experts who shared information about healthier diet habits.

Williams acknowledges she has a tough fight. Although Massachusetts’ landmark 2006 health care reform law has provided health insurance coverage to 432,000 people, it also left behind thousands of undocumented immigrants. Williams estimates that at least 22 percent of the patients receiving services from her clinic do not qualify for state-subsidized insurance.

It’s no wonder, then, that local nonprofit advocacy group Health Care For All warns that the state’s infant mortality rate is twice as high for black babies as white babies, or that Cambodian American and Vietnamese American women are less likely to receive prenatal health care services.

According to Elmer R. Freeman, executive director of the Center for Community Health Education, Research and Service at Northeastern University, health disparities result from a variety of factors beyond just access to health care.

“A number of social elements shape the ability of communities to maintain or improve health status, including neighborhood and housing conditions, educational opportunities, economic resources, bias and discrimination,” Freeman says. “Tackling disparities requires a comprehensive strategy that speaks to the broad range of factors that contribute to poor health outcomes.”

But Massachusetts hasn’t given up on minority patients.

The state created a Health Disparities Council, a legislatively appointed body comprised of physicians, academics, governmental officers and health care officials, to develop policy recommendations not only to reduce, but also to eliminate racial, ethnic and class-based health disparities.

That’s where the Whittier Street Health Center comes in.

Whittier is one of 45 U.S. health centers federally funded to provide care to public housing residents, a population that in Roxbury is heavily impacted by drugs, crime, poverty and unemployment.

“We work very hard to keep our commitment,” Williams says. “We know in some families negative social outcomes persist, despite their having some educational achievement. But we can always do better.”

Toward that end, the center recently implemented an electronic medical records system used in only 20 percent of U.S. hospitals. Williams has also revealed plans to build a new cancer center and expand Whittier’s primary care services.

“All we’re trying to do is create is a better and healthier environment,” Williams says.